The NCAA has taken some bad p.r. beatings in recent years due to the fact the "student-athletes" under the organization's care do not get paid, even with lucrative events such as football's bowl season and the March Madness basketball tournament on the schedule.
Now, a "cost of attendance" stipend is (slightly) changing the game. And the hockey world is easing in to the issue.
College hockey is hard to compare to the American juggernaut sports of football and basketball. While the latter two kill in TV ratings and revenues, they don't necessarily succeed in the "student" part of the "student-athlete" equation and since actually playing in the NFL or NBA is just as hard as getting into the NHL, that's a key issue.
According to 2014 numbers from the NCAA, men's hockey led the field in Academic Progress Rate (APR), a measure of grades, progress towards a degree and staying in school. The four-year average score of 984 from 2009-13 just edged out water polo and gymnastics, but destroyed baseball (15th place), basketball (18th) and football (19th).
Which is to say that for a hardcore traditionalist, those who play college hockey, where College Hockey Inc. reports that 92 percent of players graduate with a degree (with many going back to finish, like current NHLers Nick Bjugstad and David Backes have done), have been paid with their scholarship. Even if they never make a dime in pro hockey, they were well compensated with a free education.
But that's a pretty shallow argument. It's great that the vast majority of men's players graduate (female athletes have better graduation rates overall and from one NCAA study I found, the same holds for hockey), but in a quick survey I did with a random group of players a year ago, many agreed that a little extra cash would have been nice, just to stay full when team meals didn't cover everything.
That's where this "cost of attendance" stipend can help. According to Mark Divver of the Providence Journal, the Providence Friars (men and women) will receive $1,800 during the upcoming season on top of their scholarships. The WCHA conference also put out a statement saying that it supports the new legislation for both its men's and women's member schools, though it seems as though it will be up to the schools whether or not to participate.
Some schools are taking a wait-and-see approach, such as Robert Morris University of the Atlantic Hockey conference. Colonials coach Derek Schooley wants to form an educated opinion on the matter before he takes an official stance either way, but he does believe consistency will be important, whether it's a yes or a no.
"I think the whole conference has to do it," he told me. "Because otherwise it would create a competitive disadvantage."
Which makes a lot of sense, especially for schools competing for the same bloc of players. If Mercyhurst (also in Pennsylvania) pays players extra and Robert Morris does not, it could tip the scales in a recruiting battle.
I can also see this as a boon for Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska-Fairbanks. The stipend can be used for flights home, which may entice recruits from say, Calgary or California, who might otherwise have considered a school closer to home (or at least within driving distance).
For athletic departments, this is a tough decision. The NCAA isn't giving them extra money for the stipend; the schools have to find it themselves. Will paying the players mean budget cuts elsewhere, perhaps even in staffing? It's something to consider in a practical sense, even if morally you feel the players should have been paid long ago.